Bushranger Myth Making

In an earlier post, I provided some information on the lacklustre bushranging careers of Tom (Thomas) Dillon (1835 – 1887) and  his brother-in-law John Price (1836 – 1909; also known as John Snow, Snow being the surname of his step-father whilst growing up).

I’m aware of two stories that have been collected in recent times that purport to tell Tom’s story; both have a mythic quality to them.

Dillon’s Cave at Cooyal and the Blackmans

The first of these was published on a now defunct website called “The Drip” Mudgee, and is said to have been provided by a descendant of the Blackman family mentioned therein (1):

“During the goldrush era of the 1870’s  this cave became a hideout for bushrangers.  John Dillon and his gang found that the gold coaches traveling down the road going through the Munghorn Gap could yield rich pickings.  The younger son of Samuel Blackman, the major landowner of this part of the world at that time knew of this cave on the family property; the perfect hideout  from which to launch their raids.  Young Blackman teamed up with Dillon, offering the use of this cave, living a double life as both a trooper and a bushranger.

Eventually the whole arrangement came unstuck. A couple of members of Dillon’s gang were shot and killed fleeing from the cave; Dillon himself was captured and  hung on Cockatoo Island.  Young Blackman got away with a slap on the wrist and was immortalized in a poem by Henry Lawson, with Dillon’s taken by a character somewhat oddly called “M’Durmer”.” (http://thedripmudgee.com/dillons-cave-walk.html – accessed via the Internet Archive 19 December 2015)

Although this story refers to a John, rather than Thomas, Dillon, there isn’t much doubt that it’s inspired by the latter. Tom was misnamed as John in at least one contemporary report. But Tom was active in 1862, not the 1870s. He robbed no coaches of their gold, and the Munghorn Gap wasn’t traversed by the gold escorts. None of his gang were shot and killed and Tom wasn’t hanged.

The reference to the involvement of a member of the Blackman family is plausible, although I’m aware of only circumstantial evidence for it. Samuel Alfred Blackman’s children were too young for bushranging in 1862, as were those of his brother William Richard Blackman. The same applies to the later children of their cousin, Thomas Harley Blackman, with his wife Catherine. A possible candidate to be the Blackman bushranger is discussed below in the context of Henry Lawson’s poem “Trooper Campbell”.

However there are other Blackman possibilities as this large family was then into its 4th generation in the Mudgee district.

Contemporary reports claim that there were more than two perpetrators:

“There are six others known to have been associated with the men in custody, and the question naturally arises – how is it that these desperadoes have been so long allowed to keep possession of the roads? Their haunts and occupation are said to have been known for a length of time; if so, there must have been great remissness on the part of the police in allowing them to continue their career of rapine and plunder. There is evidently something rotten in the state of our district police affairs, and the sooner they are redressed the better.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 1862, p.2)

“Fourth Case. Robbery with Fire Arms at Cooyal. T. Marsh, farmer, Burrundulla, said he was camped at Cooyal last Friday night three weeks, when three men rode up to the fire. …” (Empire, 20 October 1862, p.5)

Their robberies were centred on Cooyal, where they were subsequently arrested . Members of the Blackman family also owned property and farmed at Cooyal, and had their own brushes with the law.

Some Blackman family members were aware of Tom and his exploits, and possibly sympathised with him. After his second escape from Mudgee Gaol, Tom was recaptured by Sergeant Andrew Cleary after being given shelter on the property of Thomas Harley Blackman on the Castlereagh River, an event witnessed as a boy by Thomas’s son, John Thomas Blackman.  John recounted the events in a letter to the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate in 1932. He addressed his letter from  “The Drip”, Cooyal, the property which is the location of the supposed “Dillon cave”.

The “legend of Dillon’s Cave” can be traced back to at least 1900, when these words were penned in the aftermath of the murders by Jimmy Governor and Jacky Underwood  at Breelong:

“Driving through what is known as the Cooyal country, I recollected that it was at Mrs. Blackman’s run (afterwards Mrs. Garbutt) that the notorious Ward, alias Thunderbolt, put in the earlier years of his life, and was noted for his intrepid manipulation of the wild and vigorous buckjumper …Here, too, in this very locality is situate Dillon’s Cave, the reference to which brings back to my mind memories of the past.

Dillon led a gang of bushrangers, some of whom were never captured, but the ringleader was taken in a lonely valley, in which is a large, open cave, his captor being the late Mr. S. A. Blackman, whose name on the colonial turf should be evergreen.” (Edwin Richards, MLA, Evening News 31 July 1900)

Samuel Alfred Blackman  was not Dillon’s captor, as discussed below. There is a possibility of confusion here with Samuel’s brother William Richard Blackman of Bleak House, Mudgee, who was involved in the capture of the bushranger Charlie Johnson in 1868 – an event during which Senior Constable Hugh Campbell was accidentally killed – see below.

Another early reference to Dillon’s Cave or “Get-away” was published in an article in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 14 February 1902:

“The cave is close to what is known as Dillon’s Cave, or ‘Get-away’. Many years ago Snow and Dillon were bushranging in the district. The police sighted Dillon on one occasion. On pursuing him he made for a wall of sandstone rock, making his way up a cleft in the wall 5 feet wide, with the walls of the passage standing at an angle of 45 degrees. The police could not get their horses to face the pass, so they had to go a mile before they could find a passage. Of course the bird had flown.”

It is common in Australia for any decent-sized cave or overhang to be attributed to some bushranger or other as their “haunt” or “lair” or, in this case, “get-away”. This article uses an additional archetype – that of the narrow defile by which the desperado makes his escape because the bumbling police can’t follow. (The article doesn’t say whether Dillon is supposed to have escaped on foot or by horse – if the latter, then it’s a feat worthy of the man from Snowy River!)

DSC02679 (Small)

The Entrance to Dillon’s Cave (photo by author, 2019)

The contemporary accounts of the capture of Dillon and Price make it quite clear that this took place at their hut “at the head of Cooyal Creek”, a location known to the police beforehand, and not at a cave.

I haven’t been able to determine the exact location of this hut. Tom’s brother-in-law Luke Jones later owned land in the vicinity, as shown in the map extract below (parish of Price). This land is close to the head of Cooyal Creek, and was possibly the site of the hut.

Luke Jones_Cooyal.jpg
Luke Jones’ land at the head of Cooyal Creek

Did Henry Lawson Write About Dillon the Bushranger?

The association of Henry Lawson’s poem “Trooper Campbell” with these events is interesting. Lawson wrote the poem in 1891. A point of correspondence with the truth is that the policeman who arrested Dillon and Price in October 1862 was Senior Constable Hugh Campbell of Mudgee police.

The term “Trooper” was associated with the NSW Mounted Police, founded in 1825. Some contemporary reports say that Campbell was “not at home in the saddle” and that he was not of the mounted police. Nevertheless, he was was to die chasing bushrangers, on the 7th of April 1868, through the fall of his horse.

Campbell was also the recipient of a testimonial, accompanied by a cheque for 20 pounds, from the citizens of Mudgee, for his capture of Dillon and Price. Ironically, this was presented two days after Dillon had made good his escape from Mudgee gaol. Campbell’s part in Dillon’s capture was well publicised in the press throughout New South Wales.

The significant lines in the poem are these:

“When Blackman met the trooper
Beyond the homestead gate.
And if the hand of trouble
Can leave a lasting trace,
The lines of care had come to stay
On poor old Blackman’s face.

‘Not good day, Trooper Campbell,
It’s a bad, bad day for me —
You are of all the men on earth
The one I wished to see.
The great black clouds of trouble
Above our homestead hang;
That wild and reckless boy of mine
Has joined M’Durmer’s gang.”

The name “M’Durmer” that Lawson uses for his bushranger doesn’t match any historical bushranger. It was a name he used in two other poems and a short story written around the same time and in different contexts (“The God-Forgotten Election”, “The Grog-An’-Grumble Steeplechase” and “New Year’s Night”). This makes it unlikely that there is any particular significance in its use here.

Vance Palmer also used a variant some 15 years later in his short story “At McDurmer’s Mercy” for the leader of another gang of bushrangers.

There are other lines in the poem that seem to point directly at one possibility to be the father of the Blackman bushranger. They are:

‘Now, Tom’, cried Trooper Campbell,
‘You know your words are wild.
‘Though he is wild and reckless,
‘Yet still he is your child;
‘So bear up in your trouble,
‘And meet it like a man,
‘And tell the wife and daughters
‘I’ll save him if I can.’

Lawson didn’t situate his poem at a known place beyond “Blackman’s Run”. However a proof copy of the poem marked up by an Angus & Robertson editor contains a note preceding this poem:

“An incident of Mudgee or Pipeclay (Eurunderee) placed in a new environment of Cunningham’s Gap Queensland. Written during the period of his best work.” (Volume 161: Angus & Robertson Manuscripts by Henry Lawson – Verses, Volume 4, 1896 and 1910 (1896). State Library of NSW website.) (2)

So there you have it – it seems Lawson’s Blackman father was a run owner in the Mudgee district (which encompasses Eurunderee and Cooyal) with the first name Tom. There was only one Tom Blackman in the Mudgee district of an age to be the father of a Blackman bushranger in 1862 – Thomas Harley Blackman of Cooyal, the father with an aboriginal mother of Thomas Henry Blackman, usually referred to at this time as “Captain” Blackman. (3) And Captain Blackman was old enough, about 19, to go bushranging in 1862.

In another poem, “Talbragar”,  about the epic ride of Ben Duggan to summon a funeral for Jack Denver, Lawson makes another mention of “Blackman’s Run”.  He elaborated on the poem  in later years in the short story “Roll Up at Talbragar”(4) Although “Blackman’s Run” isn’t mentioned in the latter version, it leaves no doubt that Ben Duggan’s ride took him through the heart of Cooyal:

“Ben Duggan rode hard, as grief-stricken men ride—and walk. At Cooyal he woke up the solitary storekeeper and told him the news; then along that little-used old road for some miles both ways, and back again, rousing prospectors and fossickers, the butcher of the neighbourhood, clearers, fencers, and timber-getters, in hut and tent.”

Why might “Captain” Blackman, if he was the third bushranger, have escaped arrest and indictment – the “slap on the wrist” of the Dillon cave story above? Firstly, none of the victims identified him at the scenes of the crimes. And secondly, although a part aboriginal man, he had powerful and respectable white relatives, three of whom were Justices of the Peace at Mudgee, and who may have been obligated to “Captain” for giving perjured evidence at their instigation. Just speculation of course!

To find out more about “Captain” Blackman and the perjured evidence visit the post “”Captain” Blackman’s Not So Good Year of 1861“.

If Lawson did base his poem on Tom Dillon, the obvious question is why he didn’t name him, given that the names Tom Blackman and Trooper Campbell can be associated with real people? Perhaps he chose to obscure Dillon’s identity because he was uncertain about whether Tom was still alive. Or perhaps “M’Durmer” scanned better than “Dillon”.

The poem also names Tom Blackman’s wife as Mary Wylie, the context being that Trooper Campbell had been in love with Mary before she married Tom. This was not the real name of Thomas Harley Blackman’s wife, who was still alive when the poem was written. However Mary Wylie, like M’Durmer, is a name Lawson used in more than one work. In  “The Selector’s Daughter” the young Mary comes to a tragic end after her father was convicted of cattle stealing.

What can be said with confidence is that in his youth (say, 1873 – 1883) Lawson lived only about 16 kilometres from Cooyal so is likely to have heard any local bushranger yarns, as well as the story of the death of Constable Campbell. Lawson’s other writings show deep familiarity with the life and times of the Mudgee and Gulgong districts.

There is also a possibility that Henry knew of Tom Dillon through either his mother, Louisa Albury, or grandfather, Henry Albury. Louisa was born at Edwin Rouse’s Guntawang property in 1848, the year before Tom arrived there as a ticket-of-leave convict assigned to  Rouse. Albury was employed as a station hand and although he is believed to have moved on to other pursuits around 1849, he remained in the Mudgee area and had a continuing association with Guntawang. (Source: The Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), Tuesday 26 September 1922, page 2 – quoting Henry’s sister Gertrude)

Tom Dillon and John Price as Murderers?

The second story was provided in a personal communication by a resident of Cooyal to Mark Dillon in July 1991 and is referenced in Mark’s privately circulated biography of Thomas Dillon:

“Apparently Dillon and Snow were partners. They murdered a girl by throwing her over a cliff… They were caught and transported to Cockatoo Island penal colony in Sydney. Snow escaped by swimming to the mainland, and eventually came back to Cooyal.

Dillon was killed in jail when a wooden beam fell on him, while he tried to escape, and broke his back. Snow came back to his wife’s house, to find her living with another man! Snow went to rest in Dillon’s Cave. Next day the wife went to Mudgee, in the pretence, to buy new clothes for Snow, but instead told the troopers. They surrounded the cave and arrested Snow!”

This story is correct in associating Dillon and John Price, and in respect of their imprisonment on Cockatoo Island. But the references to murdering a girl, escaping by swimming and Dillon’s death in jail are fanciful.

There are, however, elements of truth in the reference to  Price returning to find his wife living with another man, and this is also the case with Dillon.

A further elaboration of the murder story was provided to me in  2012 by the late Michael Creighton, then a co-owner of “The Drip” at Cooyal:

“Apparently the girl was a young Aboriginal girl with whom “Snow” had been having an affair .  His white wife found out. The cliff where he killed the girl  is behind “the Drip” and quite spectacular.”

Violence associated with relationships between white men and aboriginal women was endemic in the area at the time – for example, in 1861 Constable Hugh Campbell gave evidence at an inquest into the alleged murder by Thomas Black of an aboriginal man called John Dundar during a confrontation  which commenced with Dundar saying, “what you interfere with my little girl.” Black was committed to stand trial at Bathurst for manslaughter.

However I’m unaware of any factual evidence or other suggestion of a murder by Dillon or Price, who were convicted of highway robbery, not murder.

The escape by swimming from Cockatoo Island is an echo of the famous escape by Fred Ward, later known as the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, in September 1863. It is likely that Tom Dillon and Fred Ward knew each other as they were both living in the same milieu in the Cooyal area in 1860 and 1861, and their time on Cockatoo Island overlapped by 2 months or so. Master and apprentice? If so, the apprentice soon outshone the master, for Ward’s career was to extend over almost 7 years.

Cultural Transmission of Bushranger Stories

Both stories are interesting insofar as they demonstrate how fact and fiction become intermingled when stories are transmitted orally down the generations.

In 1932 John Thomas Blackman of “The Drip”, Cooyal wrote the detailed and somewhat sympathetic eye witness account from his memory as a six-year old of Thomas Dillon’s arrest after his second gaol escape. It is worth bearing in mind that John Thomas was Thomas Harley’s son, and therefore a half brother of “Captain” Blackman.

John’s longevity – he died in 1936 aged about 80 – probably accounts for the oral transmission of Dillon’s story in the Cooyal district into the 20th century. Although probably too young at the time to have remembered much of the capture, his father and an older sister were also present, so I imagine the story was retold more than once  as he grew up. John was proud of his family’s history, and wrote a number of letters to the press over the years promoting his point of view on some of the great local controversies of the time, such as whether James Blackman or William Lawson discovered the site of Mudgee.

John Thomas was sometimes referred to as Thomas Blackman in the press during his lifetime, for example, when his daughter Kathleen married in 1921. He is also known in bush music circles as Thomas Blackman senior, the progenitor of at least 3 generations of bush musicians. They, along with other bush musicians in the Mudgee area, were responsible for the transmission of both lyrics and tunes from the latter half of the nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth century where they were captured by folk music collectors such as John Merideth. (5)

“Tom Blackman’s Waltz”, also known as “Mudgee Waltz”, is a well-known bush dance tune in Australia, although the authorship is disputed. According to Merideth, Tom Blackman senior was “a noted fiddler and concertina player”. (6)

Merideth recorded Blackman family members including Thomas Blackman junior (Thomas John) and his sister  Mary Ann Smede (or Smeed), children of Thomas senior and his wife Mary Ann. Also their cousin Dorothy Ellen Ward nee Blackman and Thomas junior’s son, George Henry Blackman. All were associated with “The Drip” at Cooyal.

In 1934 young “Henery Chas. Blackman” of “The Drip”, Cooyal, likely a grandson of John Thomas, wrote to the children’s page of the Australian Worker newspaper offering to exchange poems with other children. One of the poems offered was, unsurprisingly,  Henry Lawson’s “Trooper Campbell”, the story of the Blackman bushranger.


1.  The family member who provided the most recent account of Dillon’s Cave is believed to have been Dorothy Ellen Ward (1915 – 2012) of “The Drip”, Cooyal. Dorothy was a grand-daughter of Thomas Harley Blackman, and a half-niece of “Captain” Blackman. These close relationships provide some confidence in Dorothy’s telling of the story, notwithstanding its inaccuracies.

2. Cunningham’s Gap is in the Darling Downs in Queensland. There is nothing descriptive in the poem to suggest it’s set there. In 1891, the year the poem was published, Lawson worked in Brisbane for the weekly magazine “The Boomerang“.

3.  Thomas Harley Blackman had other children with aboriginal mothers.

4. Henry Lawson, The Rising of the Court: And other Sketches in Prose and Verse, Angus & Robertson, 1910

5. Recordings of Tom Blackman junior and George Blackman can be streamed from the National Library of Australia website. George Blackman’s recording mentions Cooyal.

6. John Merideth & Hugh Anderson, Folk Songs of Australia and the Men and Women Who Sang Them, Ure Smith, 1968; John Merideth, Real Folk, National Library of Australia, 1995

(Herrmann Family History)

12 thoughts on “Bushranger Myth Making

  1. I believe I know who could have been the Blackman Bushranger .
    My GG grandfather Thomas Henry Blackman son of Thomas Harley Blackman who was raised at the Cooyal inn . By his uncle and Aunt . There is a court case in Mudgee where he is referred to as Captain Blackman and he was 18 years old in 1861 . I have more information if you are interested .


  2. Hi
    Interesting, I am the grandson of Dorothy Ellen Ward. I lived with her and my aunt as a kid and spent a lot of time there. Dillons cave was a big sandstone Boulder, with a hollow underneath, just tall enough to stand up. At best it was 15+ feet in diameter, with a small entrance and no way out unless you where a child. You could still see the smoke stains of the ceiling from said bushrangers.
    The name the drip actually cam from the cliff face that the aboriginal girl was thrown from. ( apparently not a one off )This was the clean water supply for the family as it was cold and clean.
    We had always known the property as, Rock End.
    We grew up with stories and tails. And like all good yarns there is some truth in all of them.
    The family story is far more interesting. One side, upstanding law abiding and hard working.
    The other devolved into extreme violence and alcoholism and poverty.
    Having all come from the British aristocracy through Elisabeth Harley and James Blackman.
    Now there is an interesting story


  3. Hi Keith
    The Blackman story is written about my gg grandfather. I have more information and photos if you’re interested . We are distant relations both descending from James and Elizabeth Blackman . If you wish to connect we could share email addresses ?
    Michelle Flynn


  4. Hi this is all very interesting. I believe my great grandmother was a Blackman from the mudge district. We have a couple of old pistols that have been handed down through the family with the belief that they belonged to a bushranger and were surrended to a Blackman relative who let the bushranger run horses on his land. The Pistols are very high quality and are very old dating from around 1790/1810.
    Any way I would love to know more ….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michelle Flynn says:
      SEPTEMBER 5, 2020 AT 7:02 PM
      Hi Melissa I would be interested in connect if you are interested ?
      My 2xgreat grandfather was Thomas Henry Blackman aka Captain Blackman .
      Maybe we could share / compare information ?
      The pistols sound really interesting you are very lucky to have them I’d love to see a photo .


  5. Hi Melissa I would be interested in connect if you are interested ?
    My 2xgreat grandfather was Thomas Henry Blackman aka Captain Blackman .
    Maybe we could share / compare information ?
    The pistols sound really interesting you are very lucky to have them I’d love to see a photo .


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